When George W. Bush looked for ways to cut spending in a budget chock-full of tax cuts for the rich, literacy programs were among the many low-income programs he targeted. While he has positioned himself as a champion for education, the President called for slashing these programs by almost two-thirds, from $569 million in 2005 to $207 million in 2006. Luckily, even the GOP-controlled Senate wouldn’t go along with this. Six Senate Republicans and an Independent joined all of the Democrats in March to approve an amendment offered by Ted Kennedy to restore $1.3 billion in funding for vocational education and $975 million for job training and adult literacy.
That vote, however, doesn’t end the debate. The House has yet to pass its budget, and in any case, budget legislation only establishes guidelines. In the appropriations process, these programs may again wind up on the chopping block.
But why would Bush look to defund programs aimed at remedying illiteracy? He defended his cuts by declaring that his Administration simply wants to eliminate programs that don’t work. Pointing to Even Start, a literacy program for low-income adults and children that he has proposed killing, Bush said, “I can’t think of anybody in the Congress who is not for helping low-income families become literate. The problem is that after three separate evaluations, it has become abundantly clear that [Even Start] is not succeeding. People are not becoming more literate.” Within days of Bush’s comment, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press ran pieces in which Scott Himelstein, chairman of the Even Start Association, vigorously challenged Bush’s assertion that the program was worthless.
After the wave of bad press following Bush’s proposal, Even Start may now survive. As Patty Sullivan, director of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, notes, 2006 is a gubernatorial election year in thirty-six states, and few governors will want to be seen going along with cuts in an education program that partly serves children. Adult literacy programs, however, don’t have the same political support behind them and remain in danger.
Literacy programs for adults are more vulnerable, according to Sullivan, because many Americans feel that paying taxes for K-12 schooling is sufficient. Beth Cady, public information associate for the International Reading Association, suggests that adult education may not rate high among Americans who believe it mostly helps immigrants. But, Cady says, the key shared trait of participants in adult literacy classes is low income. “The people who are in these programs are scratching their way up,” she says. The United States has 28 million foreign-born residents, but immigrants learning English for the first time account for only one quarter of the more than 40 million Americans who demonstrate the lowest level of prose, document and quantitative proficiencies, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. When an American has low literacy skills, it’s almost certain that his or her parents did as well. This means that adult literacy programs are doubly effective, Cady points out: “As soon as a parent joins a literacy class, their child’s chances in the world go up. Not only will the parent serve as a good role model, they will be better able to help their child learn.”
If the proposed funding cuts go through, hundreds of thousands of Americans seeking basic literacy will be left behind. “There’s no fat here [in literacy programs],” notes Ira Yankwitt, director of professional development for the New York City Regional Adult Education Network. “Programs are bare-bones; teacher pay is minimal. If these cuts go through, the number of people enrolled in free adult literacy classes in New York will drop from 165,000 to 110,000, and this state puts in significant matching funds. In many other states, the cuts will be far worse.” Nationally, according to Noreen Lopez, public policy director at the National Coalition for Literacy, “federal, state and local efforts can only meet the needs of 3 million individuals a year. Under Bush’s budget, the number of students served in a year would drop to 900,000.”
As it did when it targeted Even Start, the Bush Administration has statistics to back up its argument that federally funded adult education programs simply don’t work. In 2001 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) began to use a system known as the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) to evaluate government programs. The four sections of a PART survey measure “Program Purpose and Design,” “Strategic Planning,” “Program Management” and “Program Results.” The OMB gave Adult Education State Grants a zero rating in the last category, and Bush used this result to justify cutting these services.
The PART findings, however, are misleading. The zero rating is based on the responses OMB officials and program administrators gave to yes-or-no questions such as: “Does the program demonstrate improved efficiencies and cost effectiveness in achieving program goals each year?” “Does the performance of this program compare favorably to other programs with similar purpose and goals?” On the PART for adult education grants, the response to each of these questions was “no.” Why? The Department of Education never established measurable long-term or annual performance goals for the adult literacy program.
With no measurable outcomes, it is impossible to quantify a program’s efficiency and cost-effectiveness, or even to compare it with other programs. And besides, Yankwitt maintains, “no one ever told us we were supposed to follow PART’s rules. That’s like saying, ‘Why not follow the UN’s rules?’ That’s just the excuse that Bush is using. In fact, other programs that got a zero on PART are going to be fully funded. They just picked and chose.”
Other members of the adult literacy community have offered similar critiques. “It is clear to me that the numbers and percentages are not the issue in this case,” Art Ellison, administrator for the New Hampshire Bureau of Adult Education, noted on an adult literacy listserv. “We are dealing with an Administration that is willing to sacrifice a high-quality educational program for a political goal: maximizing available resources for the war and present/future tax cuts for the rich, while cutting domestic spending to meet the goals of those who think that the federal government should drastically reduce its commitment to programs that support the poor.”
Certainly, literacy programs haven’t caused the budget gap, and eliminating them can’t close it. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a full 45 percent of the deficit is attributable to tax cuts, 37 percent to defense, 12 percent to non-low-income programs and only 6 percent to low-income programs. The low-income programs, however, are the ones that took the largest percentage hit in the Bush budget. And with a tighter budget, adult literacy programs may lose out in subsequent Congressional wrangling. Richard Long, director of government relations at the International Reading Association, has noted, “If we don’t get the money this year, we are never getting it back.”
Supporters of federally funded adult education have had some political successes, including the passage of the Kennedy budget amendment, but literacy programs are still not safe from cuts. “This is not a battle that will go away,” says Robert Weng, administrator for the St. Louis Public Schools’ Adult Education and Literacy Program. “I expect we should plan on doing this throughout the next few years.”